Most often we do a very good job of celebrating people of importance, but once in a while a scoundrel’s name is elevated to prominence, and what follows is embarrassment, anger and the urge to make things right.
In Ontario, the Dundas name is attached to a town, streets and several schools. Most people wouldn’t give this a thought. But in Scotland a statue of Henry Dundas has been toppled after his legacy has been more carefully considered.
History remembers Henry Dundas (1742-1811) for an odious moment. In 1792, in a House of Commons debate about the abolition of slavery, the MP was able to amend legislation to abolish slavery to “gradually” from “immediately.” Dundas said he agreed in principle with the abolition of “the Slave trade” but believed it should be ended by “moderate measures”. His amendment gained favour, and slavery was not abolished in 1792 as desired by another MP, William Wilberforce.
In fact, with the help of Dundas, slavery would not be abolished in Britain and its empire for another 32 years. Over that time, countless Black men and women were placed into bondage, their slavery entirely legal under the British flag. It’s true that legislation in 1807 banned the slave trade within the empire, but slavery didn’t end until further legislation was passed in 1833.
Dundas alone can’t be held accountable for this travesty. His 1792 amendment was approved by a 230-85 vote. He had plenty of support.
From a purely economic perspective, Britain’s slave trade supported roughly 10 per cent of the empire’s wealth. Henry Dundas likely didn’t want that disrupted.
But Wilberforce saw Britain’s involvement with slavery for what it was – a hideous perversion, a condition that could not be tolerated nor supported by right-thinking people.
He pushed ahead with a call for its abolishment, and that took a long time. It was not until Wilberforce lay on his deathbed in 1833 that he heard news that the Slavery Abolition Act had been passed.
And yet his name is barely known in Ontario. There are no towns named for him. A Wilberforce Colony of freed African-Americans was established in 1829 north of London, but no longer exists. There are a few streets that bear his name, and there are some schools. At one time the Wilberforce Institute operated in Chatham.
But William Wilberforce is mostly forgotten, while Henry Dundas lives on.
That also is a hideous perversion, and this also should not be tolerated.